Valeria Napoleone is an Italian collector, patron, and philanthropist, who has been building an incredible art collection solely dedicated to female artists since the mid-1990s. Nestled in an exclusive enclave of London’s Kensington, Valeria’s home features spectacular pieces by contemporary art’s most exciting female artists, including Goshka Macuga, Margherita Manzelli, Aliza Nisenbaum, and Phyllida Barlow. A creative thinker and a strong advocate for emerging talents, Valeria Napoleone has also been championing the work of women artists by supporting many organisations, institutions, and initiatives, including Studio Voltaire, Camden Arts Centre, and Nottingham Contemporary, among others.
Forming an exceptionally close bond with artists, Valeria has zealously helped to raise profiles of many of today’s most acclaimed artists, supporting them at pivotal moments in their careers. Valeria sits on the Board of Trustees at NYU Institute of Fine Arts; is a member of NYU’s President’s Global Council; she is an Advisory Board member of the Association of Women in the Arts, and A.I.R Gallery in NYC. In June 2015, she launched Valeria Napoleone XX – an umbrella platform supporting female artists in increasing their recognition and representation in major public museums.
Marek Wolynski: You have adopted a very disciplined approach to collecting. How did you get started? What was the key reason you decided to focus on women artists?
Valeria Napoleone: I was born as an art collector in New York City in the mid-1990s. It was a magical moment for contemporary art there. I had an undergraduate degree in Journalism from New York University and was looking for an art world-created course at the master’s degree level. I started the Art Gallery Administration program at the Fashion Institute of Technology, which concerned the relationship between collectors and artists. The program took two years and, within that time, I didn’t buy anything. I was just listening, learning a lot about how the contemporary art world functions, visiting galleries and exploring the city’s contemporary art scene. It gave me a solid foundation for what came next. During these years, I figured out the position I wanted to have within the art world. I also realised that women artists were not supported enough. They were simply not present in art history.
Women artists were not present in museums and commercial galleries. At the same time, you would see artists like Cindy Sherman coming up to prominence and attention. For me, it was so inspiring to see new languages brought in by female artists and to observe incredibly talented artists starting to be looked at and recognised. A combination of these few elements made me decide to create a collection focused on female voices. I think I was born in the right place at the right time as a collector. I had enough time to mature this decision. I was excited about it, especially as I didn’t know anybody collecting young female artists.
I couldn’t understand why nobody was supporting female artists. The artwork that set the tone for my collection was a piece by an unknown woman artist. When I bought that artwork in 1997, I told myself that I would be creating a choir of female voices. Today, my collection includes more than 400 works.
I realised, in the very beginning, how vital meeting artists in person is. It’s been an incredible journey that I have been on with so many people. Over the years, many of them have become dear friends of mine. It is all about being part of a community, and this community has grown to become a solid support system over the last 20 years. I have built a relevant collection without external consultants, curators, and advisors. It’s a journey that I embark on myself because I enjoy discovering artists. I appreciate the conversation and the selection process. I provide ongoing support to many artists and often host dinners and organise fundraising for numerous art projects.
MW: You describe yourself as 50% collector and 50% patron. Can you tell me more about the XX project and your work with project partners, including Contemporary Art Society?
VN: The XX project amplifies the urgency to support incredibly talented individuals. Although it officially came to life in 2015, it just formalised what I had been doing as a patron and supporter of female artists since the mid-1990s. We have missed so much in art history just because of gender! “XX” stands for the female chromosome, and it also stands for partnerships with other organisations. XX works with different partners, including the Contemporary Art Society in the UK, SculptureCentre, and the Institute of Fine Arts in NYC. I was born as a collector in NYC, and I’m still very close to it.
XX works with the SculptureCentre as the acting agent, the mother of specific, ambitious pieces – XX makes them reach fruition. It is always about identifying opportunities. I do not dictate anything; it is all about relationships and collaborations. In the SculptureCenter, I meet with the curator and the director. We identify possibilities and work on the program together. We always look ahead 18 months or two years in advance. There is no conflict of interest; XX supports talents that are never part of my collection when we select them for the project.
The collaboration with the Contemporary Arts Society is different. When the Contemporary Art Society asked me to become a trustee, I was delighted since I truly respect what they have been doing for the past hundred years. At the same time, I’m a very creative thinker – both as a patron and as a collector. I always want to make the most out of my involvement. So I decided to amplify my message in terms of supporting those that are overlooked. For example, the Contemporary Art Society supports numerous regional museums, which are quite neglected in the UK. The reality is that regional museums don’t have money to collect and don’t get enough attention. It speaks volumes to me because I focus on female artists who are totally marginalised. So we decided to choose a different museum every year and start a discussion to select female artists and artworks that could be donated.
While it is not a commission, the process is exciting from the very beginning. How do we identify museums? The Contemporary Art Society asks museum members to fill out a straightforward questionnaire about female artists in their collection, the way they address the gender imbalance, etc. Each year, we receive around fifteen applications, and the vast majority of the museums has only 5%, sometimes 10% of female artists in their collection – no more than that! It is tragic!
Together with Caroline Douglas, Director of the Contemporary Art Society, and other committee members, I identify the museum that offers the most ambitious approach to tackle gender imbalance. We visit the institution and meet with museum curators to brainstorm ideas about the type of work and medium. We always aim to make a donation that addresses issues of the moment and speaks volumes to the community. This is a very systematic and fascinating process that repeats every year.
In NYC, I collaborate with the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, to stage two solo exhibitions of female artists every year. The shows are curated by the selected team of PhD or MA students. As I am part of the committee, I have the pleasure to discuss many ideas together with them. What’s more, there are many conversations, seminars, and performances that accompany the shows. I firmly believe that it is imperative to contribute critical analysis on women artists. Art history has not included female voices for such a long time! This situation cannot go on. For me, it’s crucial to contribute to an academic institution that educates the curators of the future.
MW: In terms of sourcing artworks, what the process of finding and buying a new piece for the collection looks like? Is it more often a one-off transaction or a long-term relationship with an artist?
VN: I’m very ambitious with my collection. For me, it’s about relationships and meeting all those incredible artists. I am an inquisitive, courageous, and creative collector. I travel, and I always go to many different shows and often visit galleries. Also, smaller non-for-profit organisations are important for me as they help me find new, younger talents. After twenty years of collecting, I have an extensive network of people who respect what I have been doing and how I have been building my collection.
I’m not the kind who likes buying and selling. It is a collection with a mission at its heart. I mainly buy from the primary market, mostly from small and medium galleries. My friends who started galleries many years ago have become quite established now. I take it very seriously because it’s very important for me to feed the ecosystem of the artists, especially the part of this ecosystem that supports emerging artists at the beginning of their careers. It is the moment when my support can make more of an impact.
As far as auctions are concerned, I look at them but over the last twenty years, I bought probably only two pieces from auction houses. Yet, following auctions helps me understand the art market dynamics. I also go to art fairs, but I occasionally buy new pieces there. I visit two or three or four leading art fairs every year: usually New York, London, Milan, and Art Basel. I look at art fairs as spaces for research, connecting with people, discussing the works, and finding new artists. For a collector, it is ion paramount importance to stay informed and know what is happening. At the same time, I mainly focus on the artists that I know and from the galleries that I know. Therefore, I like to keep art fairs at bay and nurture long-term relationships with artists that I support.
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MW: Has the pandemic influenced the way you collect art?
VN: I don’t think it made a significant impact on the way I collect. It’s not that I moved to collect online. I believe in personal relationships with people. I need to see things in person. I’m craving that. I don’t think there is a substitute for seeing artworks and artists in real life. I need to be in front of the piece to value my reaction to that. If the artist and the work speak to me, then I buy it. I need this inner connection to buy things that I love and support the artists that I respect. To respond to artwork, you have to experience it in person.
During the pandemic, I realised how important the long-term relations I have established with all the galleries are. They are my friends who I support. This type of relationship is essential for a collector. As a collector, I value the guidance of people around me. So when something like this pandemic happens, and you are not allowed to experience art in person as a collector. Then, these relationships of trust are the key to continuing collecting.
MW: What do you like the most about the art world and what do you like the least? Is there anything you would like to change in the art world?
VN: First of all, it is essential to understand many different types of art worlds. I belong to a specific art world, which not super well-known artists dominate. Eventually, they become established, but it is a world of artists, curators, and galleries that I function in. I feel so privileged to be exposed to artists’ creativity. For me, it is a journey of people, of loyalty, love and friendship. It is a journey of continuous discoveries, personal growth, and human connections. It is absolutely priceless.
In terms of what I like the least about this art world, it is the fact that art is often being treated as a commodity. There are artists who mostly care about making money and becoming famous. Some of the best artists I know struggle a lot because they are not commercially driven. However, they have incredible integrity, and their work is often more conceptual. The whole system that is based on commercial value penalises excellent art.
When I said that I was born as a collector in the right place and time, I meant it. The mid-1990s in NYC was an incredible time, with the right mentors, curators, galleries, dealers, and collectors. When I was there as a student, we had a lot of guest speakers, and I will never forget that couple of collectors who were in their 50s. They came to talk about their activities and the challenges they had to face as collectors. For example, whether we buy a new dishwasher or a new artwork for the collection? Well, of course, they decided on buying a new artwork. Who cares about a dishwasher when you can wash dishes by hand? It was amazing and truly inspiring to listen to such people.
As a collector, you are always facing this reality because nobody can buy everything. Back in the time, you could buy a major piece by an artist for $4,000. Nowadays, it is at least five, six, or seven times that for a work by a young artist. The right mindset for me to start collecting was that you do not need to be a millionaire to create a great collection. You just need to be focused and make the right decision with a lot of integrity. I have been consistent with my collection and continuously excited about new artworks by female artists. My wish list grows constantly; it’s not exhausted. I’m looking for quality in every piece I value, and I follow the artists’ careers as much as I can.
MW: What do you think are the broader responsibilities of a collector? We have already touched upon your patronage activities, but you are also Head of Development Committee at Studio Voltaire and the main juror for the Allegro Prize 2021.
VN: I love to be part of smaller organisations because I know that my contribution makes a huge difference. I collaborate with the Contemporary Arts Society and many regional museums. What drives me is to give and support what is overlooked.
After visiting Studio Voltaire for the first time, I researched and realised that nobody in the art world knew about the place, including my own friends. And I wondered, how did it happen? At the time, when I decided to support Studio Voltaire, they didn’t even have a patron scheme. Even the curators – Joe Scotland and Sarah McCrory – were not there full time yet. So we rolled a patron scheme out, and I started taking my friends there, hosting lunches and dinners in my place for them. I even organised my birthday party at Studio Voltaire. I introduced hundreds of people to the institution, bringing the organisation to their attention. Studio Voltaire is a magnificent organisation, full of integrity and experimentation. They support artists that are overlooked or await discovery. They give artists total freedom that goes beyond commercial realities so that artists can experiment. Most of the time, the shows prove to be stepping stones for the artists’ careers.
I think it is the same with the Allegro Prize – it is an opportunity to contribute to artists’ career development truly. It is the third time I have been one of the jurors, and it is an honour for me. I love working with other people, and I hope to be exposed to artists from different regions and backgrounds. It’s not easy to recognise younger artists who are either just out of school or at the beginning of their careers because you don’t know them. So I’m a little bit scared, but at the same time you need to pick your brain so much. And it’s an exercise that I like to do. And then, you need to make the case and convince other jurors and the committee. I believe it’s going to be an inspiring journey.
I appreciate the integrity that the Allegro Prize has. The competition is open – there is no age limit and no territorial restrictions. I am sure that there will be numerous exciting surprises. Nowadays, when art schools are so expensive, it is crucial to offer competitions without an entry fee and the Allegro Prize is one of them. It is vital for me that the organisers have the integrity and have taken the right steps to create authentic opportunities for emerging artists.